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Papyrocentric Performativity is a sub-site of Overlord of the Über-Feral, where further book-reviews are sometimes posted.

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Mobile MetalBattleground: The Greatest Tank Duels in History, ed. Steven J. Zaloga (Osprey Publishing 2011)

Allum’s Album – The Collector’s Cabinet: Tales, Facts and Fictions from the World of Antiques, Marc Allum (Icon Books 2013)

Aschen PassionDeath in Venice and Other Stories, Thomas Mann, translated by David Luke (1988)


Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

Mobile Metal

Battleground: The Greatest Tank Duels in History, ed. Steven J. Zaloga (Osprey Publishing 2011)

A big, solid book about a big, solid weapon: the tank. But tanks are mobile too. Their contradictions are part of what’s so fascinating about them. On the one hand, they’re terrifyingly powerful. They can crash through houses, wreak havoc with a single shot and grind human beings to bloody pulp. On the other hand, they’re horrifyingly vulnerable. The same armour that protects the crew can trap them:

On the defensive side, the T-72’s armor was vulnerable to the Abrams 120mm gun and its unshielded ammunition meant that penetrations usually led to catastrophic fires which incinerated the tank, often too quickly for the crew to escape. These spectacular explosions were profoundly demoralizing to the crews of neighboring tanks, who sometimes abandoned their own vehicles after witnessing such frightening conflagrations. (“M1 Abrams vs T-72: Desert Storm 1991”, “Analysis”, pg. 355)

That’s from the final section of the book, which covers the confrontation between American and Iraqi tanks in the Gulf War of 1991. Before that, the expert contributors discuss “T-34 vs Panther: Ukraine 1943”, “Tiger vs Sherman Firefly: Normandy 1944”, “M26 Pershing vs T-34-85: Korea 1950” and “Centurion vs T-55: Golan Heights 1973”. This is a work of serious military history and there’s a lot of technical, technological and tactical detail. But tanks aren’t just interesting: they’re exciting too and this book is also about the “mortal danger and adrenaline rush of combat” (pg. 119), whether that’s explicit or not.

And the first two sections are about the dark glamour of Nazism. Aesthetics and associations always mattered to Hitler’s death-cult, which is why exotic Panthers were fighting utilitarian T-34s in Ukraine and menacing Tigers were fighting feeble-sounding Fireflies in Normandy. German weapons and uniforms looked good too, as you can see in the short biography devoted to the “Tiger tank ace” Michael Wittmann:

… Wittmann served in the bitter defensive stands the Germans enacted in and around Caen during July [1944]. Yet on August 8 – by which time the now SS-Hauptsturmführer (Captain) Wittmann had claimed 139 combat kills – the Panzer ace met a warrior’s end during a desperate counterattack launched against numerically superior Allied forces. (pg. 133)

Tanks are the modern equivalent of cavalry and the glamour that went with the latter now goes with the former. Like cavalry, tanks can transform battles in a single sudden burst of speed and violence. But cavalrymen were often thought of as gallant but stupid, as Conan-Doyle’s Brigadier Gerard proves. Tankmen have to be clever and courageous. And cool under pressure. As technology advances, the minds of the men who use it have to adapt. Those who adapt best, fight best and survive best.

War has always been about technology and technological advance, whether it was iron weapons surpassing bronze weapons millennia ago or computer viruses wrecking centrifuges in the 21st century, but tanks were a particularly big innovation. They combine the killing power of artillery with the mobility of cavalry and the toughness of fortifications: what could Alexander, Julius Caesar, Gustavus Adolphus or Napoleon have done with them? As it was, they appeared in a war whose generals are generally regarded as buffoons, not geniuses. That was the First World War, which this book acknowledges but doesn’t discuss at length. Tanks weren’t a perfected weapon then, after all.

They still aren’t, but they had got a lot closer by 1939 and the Second World War, which was their first great chance to show what they could do – or rather, what they could be. And what could they be? The difference between victory and defeat in battle. They were the basis of the Wehrmacht’s initial success, then of the Allies’ fight-back and eventual triumph. After that came the Korean War, the Arab-Israeli war of 1973, and Desert Storm. All of these are covered here and all have their lessons for the military historian and their excitement for the tank-buff. The text enlightens and the graphics illustrate. You even get to look through the gunsights. If you like tanks, you should like this book.

Allum’s Album

The Collector’s Cabinet: Tales, Facts and Fictions from the World of Antiques, Marc Allum (Icon Books 2013, paperback 2015)

“A regular on [the] BBC’s Antiques Roadshow”, Marc Allum knows a lot about antiques and history and can write compellingly about what he knows, from mudlarks in Victorian London to the names of drinking-vessels in ancient Greece by way of the formula for the value of diamonds (Wt2 x C). Antiques are inanimate, but part of the point to them is that they’re tokens of life. People don’t last for centuries, but their playthings and practicalities do. Some antiques were valuable from the moment they were made, because of the skill or the precious materials that went into them. Others acquire value by their associations. Ordinary things like toothbrushes and hats can take special power from being associated with extraordinary people:

Napoleon’s toothbrush. On display at the Wellcome Collection, Euston, London, Napoleon’s silver-gilt and horsehair toothbrush is engraved with an ‘N’ under a crown. Apparently, he used opium-based toothpaste.

The Spear of Destiny, also known as the Holy Lance, is the lance that pierced the side of Jesus while [he was] hanging on the cross. There have been several contenders over the centuries, but the main one is the example displayed in the Imperial Treasury of the Hofburg Palace in Vienna, which has a long and fascinating history. It also contains an object that has been tested scientifically and is thought to be consistent with a 1st-century Roman nail. (pg. 117)

The entry before that is about Star Wars and Darth Vader dolls: it’s impossible to guess what will turn up next as you turn the pages of this book, which makes it like a cellulose version of Antiques Roadshow. But books make you think much more than TV does. Antiques raise all sorts of fascinating philosophical, aesthetic and sociological questions. Are they like secular relics, for example? In lots of ways they are. One way is that that many of them aren’t what they claim to be. Allum writes a lot about fakes and forgeries. As value rises, so does the need for verification.

Or the need to obfuscate on verification. Dealers can collude with forgers or not care whether they are. The world of antiques is the world full stop, because every aspect of human behaviour, endeavour and interest is represented there. If human beings use something, it can become an antique, from toys to microscopes, from stamps to swords. This is a good short introduction to a very big subject.

Aschen Passion

Death in Venice and Other Stories, Thomas Mann, translated by David Luke (1988)

The first time I tried this collection, I read the first story, “Little Herr Friedemann”, and the last, “Death in Venice”. I thought they were both very good: powerful, moving, and mysterious. But I didn’t try any of the other stories, except for a little of “Gladius Dei”. I felt somehow that they wouldn’t be worth it.

Now I’ve come back to the book and tried to read it from beginning to end. I’ve failed and my reluctance to try the other stories seems to have been justified. “Little Herr Friedemann” was still good and so was “Death in Venice”. The others I found variously trite or impossible to finish. “The Road to the Churchyard”, about an unhealthy drunk on foot encountering a healthy youth on a bicycle, reminded me of Maupassant. But Maupassant would have done it much better.

At least, I’ve found Maupassant very good in French. But the same stories have been less good when I’ve tried them in English. Maybe that was part of the problem here. I can’t read Mann’s stories in German and if I could I still wouldn’t be sure of judging them right. But I assume it’s easier for a good story in the original to become a bad story in translation than for the reverse. And “Death in Venice” is a very good story in this translation. After you’ve read it, David Luke’s clever and insightful introduction to the collection will make it even better.

As he points out, “Death in Venice” is in part an updating and expansion of “Little Herr Friedemann”, which is also about thwarted passion and the eruption of Dionysiac energies in an Apollonian life. But the earlier story is tragic and realistic, the later tragicomic and dream-like:

Aschenbach bedeckte seine Stirn mit der Hand und schloß die Augen, die heiß waren, da er zu wenig geschlafen hatte. Ihm war, als lasse nicht alles sich ganz gewöhnlich an, als beginne eine träumerische Entfremdung, eine Entstellung der Welt ins Sonderbare um sich zu greifen, der vielleicht Einhalt zu tun wäre, wenn er sein Gesicht ein wenig verdunkelte und aufs neue um sich schaute. – Der Tod in Venedig (1912), Drittes Kapitel.

Aschenbach put his hands over his forehead and closed his eyes, which were hot from too little sleep. He had a feeling that something not quite usual was about to happen, that the world was undergoing a dreamlike alteration, becoming increasingly deranged and bizarre, and perhaps this process might be arrested if he were to cover his face for a little and take a fresh look at things. (section 3)

The world will indeed become increasingly deranged and bizarre, as the distinguished novelist Gustav Aschenbach allows his infatuation with a young Polish boy to strip him of his reason, his dignity and, finally, his life. The title tells the reader that his doom is inevitable, so Mann has to make the journey there interesting. And it is: psychologically, symbolically, allegorically, and literally too. Aschenbach couldn’t have stayed in Munich: he needed a rich, fantastic, southern and sea-washed setting for his doomed romance.

The boy, Tadzio, is delicately and skilfully depicted – “presented,” as David Luke says in the introduction, “with extraordinary subtlety, mysteriously yet very realistically paused between innocence and a certain half-conscious coquetry”. I was reminded of Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisited (1945), who also visits Venice with the protagonist. But that’s a novel and the protagonist will see Sebastian grow old and lose his beauty. Aschenbach will never see that happen to his object of desire: Tadzio’s beauty enthrals and destroys him, successfully tempting him to stay on in Venice as cholera rages and tourists flee.

“Death in Venice” is also reminiscent of Lolita (1955) and you could call it the homosexual variant on the same paedophilic theme. But I found Lolita too repulsive to finish the last time I tried it. “Death in Venice” is more ironic, more comic and more moral. Its unnatural love-affair is never consummated and it will be news of Aschenbach’s death that shocks the world, not news of his arrest. Where Lolita has undoubtedly encouraged crime, “Death in Venice” may occasionally have admonished those contemplating it.

Slater on Slayer

Slo-Mo Psy-Ko: The Sinister Story of the Stockport Slayer…, Zac Zialli (TransVisceral Books 2016)

(This is a guest-review by David Slater)

[Unfortunately David has not completed the review within the Papyrocentric deadline.]


• David Slater is simul-scribe of seminal snuff-study Killing for Culture: A Dysmorphic Duo of Death’n’Decomposition-Dedicated Deviants Called Dave Sniff Out the Slimiest Secrets of Snuff’n’Stuff (Visceral Visions 2016) and of visceral vid-’vestigation See No Evil: A Tenebrose Twosome of Toxic Transgressivologists Stiffen their Sinews and Set to Selebrating a Splanchnophilically Sizzling Selection of Viscidly Noxious Video Nasties (Visceral Visions 2012).

Diamond in the DirtDirty Story: A further account of the life and adventures of Arthur Abdel Simpson, Eric Ambler (Bodley Head 1967)

Spin DoctorateGossamer Days: Spiders, Humans and Their Threads, Eleanor Morgan (Strange Attractor Press 2016)

Kid ChaosStill William, Richmal Crompton (1925)

Permission to BlandSomething Fresh, P.G. Wodehouse (1915)

Succulent Selections – for Sizzlingly Serebral Splanchnoscopophilists…

Tempting a Titan – a further exclusive extract from Titans of Transgression (TransVisceral Books, forthcoming)


• Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

Dirty Story: A further account of the life and adventures of Arthur Abdel Simpson, Eric Ambler (Bodley Head 1967)

Like many other readers, I finished Ambler’s The Light of Day (1962) wanting to hear more from its neurotic anti-hero Arthur Simpson, the Anglo-Egyptian petty crook who got caught up in a big jewel-robbery in Istanbul. He was a highly engaging character not despite his many flaws but because of them.

Five years later Ambler duly supplied more of Arthur in the novel Dirty Story. I finished it feeling very disappointed: this is a book to remind you that only the mediocre are always at their best. Perhaps it wouldn’t have seemed so bad if I hadn’t already read The Light of Day. But I had and I could see that Ambler had ruined one of his best characters by putting him in entirely the wrong setting. Arthur is a man of the city; Dirty Story puts him into the African jungle. He’s not a man of action; Dirty Story makes him into an armed mercenary. The incongruity is too big, unlike his involuntary transformation from petty crook to jewel-robber in The Light of Day. That incongruity was entertaining and made you feel sympathy for him. But Arthur as a mercenary?

No, it doesn’t work. Nor does the twist whereby, as in The Light of Day, he makes it out with a whole skin and a new ambition. But the book started promisingly. Arthur is back in Greece and wants a new passport. He gets into big debt to pay for it and has to work off the debt by becoming an assistant on a pornographic film. Helped by a thuggish and unstable Frenchman called Goutard, he recruits actresses for the film from Madame Irma, the madame who appeared in The Light of the Day. But Goutard tries to lure the girls away to a new brothel and Madame Irma is understandably annoyed. She denounces both Arthur and Goutard to the Greek police and they have to flee the country together on a ship.

Arthur is back in the soup again: he’s lost his home in Athens and his attractive young Greek wife and has no prospect of getting them back. After all, he has no real right to live in Greece and no real nationality: that was why he was trying to buy himself a new passport. He and Goutard end up in Djibouti, where the authorities give them a week to get out or get into big trouble. And now there’s one last chance for Ambler to supply a worthy sequel to The Light of Day. Arthur is wondering what he can do next:

Aden was only one-hundred-and-fifty miles away by sea across the Bab el Mandeb strait. I thought that if I could get to Aden I might be able to land a job as a steward on one of the boats that stopped there. They didn’t know me in Aden, and anyway it was a busier port than Djibouti. I had no union card, of course, or seaman’s papers, but I thought that some of the cargo liner captains might not be too particular about that if they happened to be short-handed. (Book I, ch. 6)

Who knows what interesting adventures he could have had working as a steward on a holiday liner? He could have got involved in smuggling or a ship-wreck, become an accidental hero, even had another run-in with the jewel-robbers of The Light of Day. But he doesn’t become a steward and none of that happens. Instead, Goutard, a veteran of wars in Algeria and Indo-China, helpfully finds him work as a mercenary for a mining firm in an unnamed African country.

Arthur has given him a false impression of his own military experience, you see: “Of course I am not, strictly speaking, an old soldier, but because of my father I sometimes feel like one.” The job doesn’t seem too bad: he’s told it will involve “showing some stupid macaques how to secure and protect a strip of land” (macaque, literally a kind of monkey, is coarse French slang for a member of the Black Community). In fact, it will involve a lot more than that and although Arthur won’t have to fight, he will have to operate a radio while bullets are flying.

Because he’s operating a radio, he gets a chance to betray his employers to a rival mining company. By then, he isn’t a good character any more. He is out of his milieu and there are no fascinating glimpses into an exotic culture and its history, as there had been in The Light of Day. I finished the book no longer caring about Arthur and no longer wanting to hear more about him. Dirty Story may have inspired Frederick Forsyth’s The Dogs of War (1974), which is also about mercenaries, mining and double-crosses in Africa, but The Dogs of War is a far better book. Forsyth doesn’t have Ambler’s sophistication or subtlety, but he can tell a rattling good yarn and the technical details of The Dogs of War are much more interesting.

So read Dogs, not Dirty. If you liked The Light of Day, I doubt that you’ll like Dirty Story. I certainly didn’t and I’d prefer to see it as an apocryphal Gospel, purporting to be by Arthur but really by an imposter. But there are glimpses of what might have been here and in 2017 there’s even more pathos in the bathos of a dialogue right at the beginning. Arthur is trying to get a British passport and is being interviewed by “H. Carter Gavin, Her Britannic Majesty’s Vice-Consul in Athens”:

“This states that your name is Arthur Abdel Simpson, that you were born in Cairo, Egypt, on October the sixteenth, nineteen hundred and ten.”

“I know what it states.”

“It also says that you are the son of Regimental Quartermaster Sergeant Arthur Thomas Simpson of the Army Service Corps and his wife Mrs Rhita Simpson whose maiden name is given as Rhita Fahir.”

“What of it? My mother was Egyptian.”

He put the photostat down. “Quite so. But she was not married to your father.”

“That is a despicable lie.” I was still calm. “The certificate was signed by the Adjutant of my father’s regiment.”

“No doubt. Possibly he didn’t read what he was signing very carefully.” Sneering all the time. “Possibly he didn’t read it at all. As Regimental Quartermaster-Sergeant your father probably gave him a great many papers to sign.”

“My father was an officer and a gentleman,” I protested angrily.

“He became an officer certainly.” (Book I, ch. 1)

Note the first line of dialogue: Arthur was born in 1910. If he were a real person, the storm-and-stress of his life would be long over by now. I doubt that he would have made it past the 1980s. Indeed, you could say he was killed off in Dirty Story. But he still lives and breathes in The Light of Day and readers must still finish that book wanting to hear more from him. I haven’t re-read it since finishing Dirty Story and I’ll be interested to see what this apocryphal Gospel has done to my appreciation of the real thing. Improved it, I hope.

Spin Doctorate

Gossamer Days: Spiders, Humans and Their Threads, Eleanor Morgan (Strange Attractor Press 2016)

Spiders are special. Like cats among the mammals, there’s a magic and a mystery to them that make them unique among the arthropods or the arachnids. Scorpions are simply sinister: spiders are simultaneously sinister and special.

Why so? It’s their webs and their waiting. Spiders that don’t spin webs still have something special about them, but that’s partly because of their web-spinning cousins. The web is the key. And Eleanor Morgan begins this book as she will go on: writing about the key to the web:

In the late summer of 2004 I began to collect the silk of spiders. These are the gossamer days, the time of year when every bush, railing, gap and crevice seems to sparkle with threads of spider web. (Introduction, pg. xv)

She’s an “artist and writer”, not a biologist, and in 2013 she completed a “PhD on the human uses of spider silk at the Slade School of Fine Art and the Department of Anthropology, University College London”. That was not a good sign, but this isn’t a pretentious, verbose or po-mo-polluted book. The first epigraph is from Ovid’s Metamorphoses and there’s no ugly jargon from cultural theory. Instead, she tells interesting stories from around the world about spiders and the human beings who have collected their silk and tried to create things with it.

It has amazing properties after all, and although silk-worms have proved much easier to harvest, some garments have been made from spider-silk. And so have some gun-sights: spider-silk was once used for cross-hairs:

At the Vickers’ optical instruments factory in York, boys were still being sent out in the 1960s to look for spiders. They searched early in the morning, while the dew was still on the ground and on the spider webs, so that they were easier to spot. Each spider was placed in a separate pillbox to avoid them eating each other. […] After the silk had been collected, the spiders were returned to the common and new ones collected next morning. (pg. 44)

That’s from chapter 2, “Lining”, which has an epigraph from Euclid: “A line is a length without breadth.” Spider-silk was once the closest approach to that abstract ideal, combining extreme fineness with great strength. And great elasticity too: in chapter 5, “Vibrating”, Morgan looks at spider-silk as a form of telegraph, alerting spiders to edible captures in their webs. There are also legends about spiders being attracted by other kinds of vibration: music and singing. But did they really and regularly descend from the ceiling to hear the singing at a girls’ school in Victorian London? It doesn’t seem so, but it’s a good story and another example of the threads that human weave about spiders.

Other chapters including “Weaving”, “Transforming”, “Lining” and “Layering”. In “Layering”, Morgan writes about visiting the Science Museum in London and viewing a sinister “smothering hood” fashioned from spider-silk on the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu). The hood was used to “suffocate widows immediately after the deaths of their husbands, so that they might continue their ‘wifely ministrations’ in the next world.” (pg. 85) Or so old records at the Museum say. In fact, the smothering hood she looks at is nothing of the kind: it’s really “a spider web headdress worn in male initiation ceremonies” (pg. 88). Spiders often appear in magic, myth and religion, and here’s an unusual example. Were the male initiates pretending to be spiders? Again, it doesn’t seem so, but wearing the headdress was a way of smothering oneself in the specialness of spiders.

Metaphorically speaking, so is this book. It has many more strange and interesting stories and ideas, plus some strange and interesting drawings and photographs. The biggest flaw is the lack of an index. And it’s a bigger flaw than usual here. After all, an index is rather like a spider at the centre of a web, registering the vibrations in its threads. Without an index, you don’t know what’s caught in the text-web. And I would have liked more images of real spiders and their webs: the beautiful pencil-sketch of Araneus diadematus on page 4 seemed to promise more, but more didn’t come.

I assume the sketch was by Eleanor Morgan herself. If so, she draws as she writes: clearly and compellingly. Gossamer Days is a special book about special creatures. But it should be read in conjunction with a more scientific text, because spiders and their silk have more secrets and specialness than Morgan has room to describe here.

Kid Chaos

Still William, Richmal Crompton (1925)

An early and excellent entry in the William canon. Like P.G. Wodehouse and J.P. Martin, Richmal Crompton is an author who inspires me to ration myself. I stop myself reading too much at one sitting, because it’s easy to be greedy when the pleasure of reading is so great. But it’s the prose and the playfulness of Wodehouse and Martin that are pleasurable. Their writing is so light and inventive that it makes me feel happy just to read it.

Crompton is different: her prose isn’t particularly good, but her characters and humour certainly are. As I said in my review of William in Trouble (1927), she’s very good at capturing the psychology of children. She’s also very good at capturing dialogue and bringing characters to life by the way they speak:

“So this is little William,” said Uncle Frederick, putting his hand on William’s head. “And how is little William?”

William removed his head from Uncle Frederick’s hand in silence then said distantly:

“V’ well, thank you.”

That’s from “William’s Truthful Christmas”, in which William is inspired by a Christmas sermon to “cast aside all deceit and hypocrisy” and speak only the truth. The consequences are predictable: William does what he always does and introduces chaos into the well-ordered and well-regulated adult world. He might be small in stature, but he’s big in influence.

So is Violet Elizabeth Bott, the angelic, lisping and iron-willed six-year-old who makes her debut here in “The Sweet Little Girl in White”. William has no defence against her ability to conjure tears at will, as she does in that story, or against her threat to “thcream and thcream and thcream until I’m thick”, which first appears in “William the Match-Maker”. But if William can’t control Violet Elizabeth, nor can his family control him. After he’s plunged his beautiful elder sister Ethel into more embarrassment with his match-making, Ethel makes a plaintive request:

“Mother,” she said, “can’t we do anything about William? Can’t we send him to an orphanage or something?”

“No, darling,” said Mrs. Brown calmly. “You see, for one thing, he isn’t an orphan.”

“But he’s so awful!” said Ethel. “He’s so unspeakably dreadful!”

“Oh, no, Ethel,” said Mrs. Brown, still darning placidly. “Don’t say things like that about your little brother. I sometimes think that when William’s just had his hair cut and got a new suit on, he looks quite sweet!”

Anyone who knows William will also know that “sweet” is not the mot juste, but Mrs. Brown always tries to see the best in her children. She represented calm and William represented chaos in 1925, when this book was first published, and they still represented calm and chaos forty-five years later in 1970, when William the Lawless, the last William book, was published. They never aged and their world never took on any more solidity. Geography and landscape didn’t interest Crompton: character and dialogue did. William is one of the best characters in children’s literature and he’s at his best here.

But today he’s no longer at his most popular. That’s why I’m glad that my copy of Still William is older than I am. My battered hard-back was awarded as a prize in 1951 to “Michael Weatherill” at the Jesmond Road School, overseen by the “West Hartlepool Education Committee”. He won it for “Perseverance”, which is very appropriate. William perseveres, always trying to extract fun and excitement from an often difficult world. Fun isn’t guaranteed, but excitement always is. Without William, life would be duller for both his fictional family and his fiction’s fans.

Something Fresh, P.G. Wodehouse (1915)

Another book to remind you that only the mediocre are always at their best. At his best, Wodehouse is sublime, but it was impossible for such a prolific author to always be at his best. And particularly not when he was still learning his craft. This novel is the first devoted to Blandings Castle and its eccentric master Lord Emsworth, but the title promises something that isn’t delivered.

The style isn’t fresh: it’s clogged with Victorian facetiousness. Wodehouse hasn’t taken to the literary wing, as he would in the Ukridge and Mulliner stories. He hasn’t learnt how to mix simplicity with silliness and cerebrality, as he would in the Jeeves stories. Jeeves definitely isn’t my favourite Wodehouse character. I’d even say I dislike him, but some of the Jeeves stories are undoubtedly classics and they’re very enjoyable to read. Perhaps Wodehouse was at his best in a short story. I’ve certainly given up on some of his novels – this one, for example. Lord Emsworth is eccentric here but not amusing. When he carries off a valuable scarab by mistake from an American millionaire’s collection, it’s a plot-device, not something that seems natural.

And although the Efficient Baxter appears here too, he’s a shadow of his future and formidable self. The Empress of Blandings isn’t even a shadow. At least, I saw no hint of her presence in what I read and there was no mention of her on the back cover. Blandings without the Empress is like strawberries without cream. And this novel is like straw without berries. It’s dull, contrived and unamusing, Wodehouse at far below his best.